Hong Kong, China and the United States: A Major International Issue

By Jerome A. Cohen

As widely expected, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s very late withdrawal of the notorious extradition bill has had no pacifying effect. Perhaps it has even exacerbated the situation by demonstrating how reluctant the Hong Kong government and the Central Government are to make any reasonable concession to local public opinion. They are still relying on the attrition strategy that eventually ended the 2014 Umbrella Movement. They hope that even the most dedicated protesters will eventually wilt from exhaustion and despair.

Events in Hong Kong may someday add to the internal pressures for improving the Mainland system of criminal justice in practice as well as law but any significant changes will have to await a radical shift in the policies of the Chinese Communist Party, and that shift seems far from today’s horizon.

The currently contemplated Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the United States is immediately of symbolic importance but will also add to American leverage over Beijing in practical terms because of its threat to eliminate Hong Kong’s special status under American law. The so called “nuclear option” it authorizes would significantly add to Hong Kong’s protection against the PRC’s use of military force to govern Hong Kong, but, as the “nuclear” name suggests, actual resort to this deterrent would substantially harm Hong Kong economically in order to “save” it politically.

It reminds me of the annual Congressional Most Favored Nation (MFN) review of China’s human rights actions that took place in the 1990s before Congress agreed to approve PRC entry into the WTO. Many in America regret the U.S. surrender of that option to withdraw the MFN access to the U.S. market of a China whose exports required it. The annual threat to deny the PRC this MFN treatment was one of the few tools the U.S. Government had to effectively express its support for human rights in China. While not as profound in its impact on China as the withdrawal of MFN might have been, the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would nevertheless  threaten to inflict serious damage on the PRC’s national economy as well as on Hong Kong by ending Hong Kong’s special customs status.

Hong Kong is surely not a matter of China’s exclusive domestic concern, as the PRC claims, but obviously a matter of great and legitimate international importance for many reasons. Not the least is the applicability of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to Hong Kong and the PRC’s obligations under various human rights treaties it has ratified, including the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

Hong Kong’s protesters are today’s greatest challenge to PRC efforts to persuade the world of its “soft power.” The outrageous suppressions of freedom, human rights and the rule of law throughout the Mainland and even the increasingly well-known repression in China’s Xinjiang as well as Tibet have not had as big an impact on world opinion as present events in Hong Kong. It is time for the PRC to recognize this, and it is time for President Trump to consistently communicate this to Beijing in public as well as in private.